My Blog is Ten Years’ Old: A Retrospective

In the Beginning: 2009-2010

I’d like to thank all of you who have dropped by this blog over the years. It is hard for me to believe a decade has passed since I began it. I started to write again as a personal act of healing which in time morphed into a new chapter of my ministry.

From August of 2000 when I sustained a traumatic brain injury in a catastrophic bicycle accident my life had been turned upside down and inside out. It took me many years to find some solid footing of enough health and faith to begin writing regularly again. I have always been a writer and in 2009 I felt well enough to launch this blog. So I did.

The celebration is a bit overdue as I began this blog on March 23.  The blog was then called Retired Pastor Ruminates and the very first post was called “Where I Ruminate on how Communications Technology has changed the scholarly life.” That was 489 posts ago.

I had previously been blogging from time to time on the site of the Confessing Christ movement in the United Church of Christ, along with Gabriel Fackre and Cliff Anderson. In 2009 my friend Martin Langeveld, the former publisher of the Berkshire Eagle, encouraged me to start my own blog.

The first year I tried to continue what I did on the Confessing Christ blog, raising theological issues and holding up theologians who had influenced me. I also added some eclectic offerings on various subjects and threw in some recipes. It quickly became apparent to me that I wanted it to have a wider scope than just a “theoblog.” I soon wrote about brain injury and the Red Sox, and I started posting some of my sermons and hymns.

I did an interview with Martin on “The Future of Newspapers,” a series we continued for several years. In early 2010 I wrote a movie review of Avatar “The Green Religion of the Blue People” that is still one of my favorites. In June I began what I call my angry, satirical phase, beginning with the Swiftian “Ten Highly Effective Strategies for Crushing your Pastor’s Morale,” which got picked up by Episcopal Café and went viral. Seems Episcopalians are particularly concerned about clergy morale. Several readers missed that I was being satirical and chastised me for being so negative.

That summer I wrote two more satires poking loving but pointed fun at my own United Church of Christ. When Anne Rice left the (Catholic) church (again) some of my UCC colleagues invited her to join us. This rang as a little too self-righteous to me so I wrote “My Top Ten Reasons why Anne Rice would hate the United Church of Christ.” That one reads a bit snarky to me now. I also poked fun at our running after celebrities for our denominational conclaves in “Let’s Get Keith Richards to General Synod!” I still like that one.

That same summer I started a series on clergy morale after a couple clergy friends got knocked around by their churches (or more specifically, by rogue church leaders.) The economic downturn of 2008 laid bare the real religion of many of our churches and members and economic panic often replaced steadfast faith.

Posts about clergy morale continue to be a feature of this blog and I started a section called Pastoralia to bundle together my insights into local church ministry. Often I was preaching to myself a bit. My “Prayer for a Retire Pastor” was definitely something I wrote for myself, and it has been a perennial favorite across the years. I get lovely notes from people who have used it at a farewell ceremony for their clergy. Another popular post is the comic (but poignant) “Prepare Three Envelopes: A Parable about Pastoral Ministry.”

The Second Phase: 2011-2012

In 2011 I wrote “A Book Review of Elizabeth Stroudt’s Abide with Me,” which remains my personal favorite of my reviews. I loved the book because of its reference to Maine and to the thinly fictional “Brockmorton Theological Seminary.”

That year on retreat Pastor Eric Elnes encouraged me to stop thinking of myself as a retired pastor whose ministry was behind me. I realized he was right, that I had created a new ministry in my writing and so I contemplated a name change for the blog.

On June 28, 2011 I changed the name of the blog to When I Survey . . ., an homage to Isaac Watts’ iconic hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and my book on the atonement of the same name. My Australian friend Jason Goroncy was visiting at the time and helped me switch my platform from Blogger to WordPress.

Around that time I started changing my header picture to match the seasons of the year. The picture is always from my back porch looking out into the marsh behind my house. In the nice weather I do most of my writing out there.

In the Fall of that year. Eric Elnes also invited me to an eight-week blogging series on Hope for Darkwood Brew.I enjoyed that very much and it gave my blog a new audience.

2013 and The Daily Devotional

Several nice things happened to me in 2013 that helped me get back on my feet and regain a sense of purpose and ministry. In January my dear friend Mike Bennett asked me to preach his installation sermon at his new call in Dover, NH. That sermon was “Ministry is not a Commodity and Ministers are not Appliances.”

Then in the Spring of 2013 I was invited to contribute to the United Church of Christ’s “Still Speaking Writers’ Group’s” Daily Devotional. This is an electronic devotional that people subscribe to and receive the devotion in their e-mail each day. I have been told it has 40,000 subscribers.

I think the invitation to write for them came in part because of the writing I had been doing on this blog. Many of the more than a hundred devotions I have written I have put up on this blog, and I have a complete appendix of them on the right-hand side of my page. This writing ministry has been a wonderful challenge and a delight to me. I sometimes get lovely personal notes from readers.

Then in June that year my daughter, Rebecca, was ordained to the ministry and she asked me to preach her ordination sermon, which is called “The Secret Sauce of Ministry: A Recipe in Two Parts.” That was a high and holy day.

2014-2016 Eulogies and Remembrances

A new phase of life and blogging began as some of my dear friends and mentors died, and I wrote remembrances and eulogies about them.

First, I remembered my mother on the 100 anniversary of her birth, “A Son’s Remembrance of His Mother on her Birthday: Frances Irene Floyd. March 4, 1914-September 18, 1967.” That has been one of my popular posts.

In May I was invited to address “The Saints,” the organization for retired clergy in the CT Conference of the UCC. I saw a number of old friends and classmates at that special event. May address was called “Taking the Long View: Reflections of a Retired Pastor” based on a devotion of the same name I had written.

More deaths that year meant more tributes.  I remembered my late friend Willis Elliott in July, and my friend Andrew Wissemann in August.

Also in 2015 I received a commission from Eileen Hunt,  Minister of Music at Green’s Farms Church in Westport, CT to write a baptismal hymn. That became “Come Here by the Waters: A Baptismal Hymn.” That hymn has been used many times since by churches of many denominations. And on a high personal note it was sung at the baptisms of my own grandchildren.

2015 turned out to be my best year in terms of views and visitors; I had 48, 803 views and 34, 698 visitors to my site.

In 2016 I gave tributes to three of my seminary professors who died over a short period that year. In February I wrote “A Tribute to Max Stackhouse.” A few weeks later I wrote “A Tribute to Meredith “Jerry Handspicker” and in May I wrote “Remembering William L. Holladay.”

In all these tributes I became acutely aware of the passage of time and of the countless debts I owe to so many who helped shape who I am. I was a young man when I had these learned teachers (so were they in retrospect!), but now I am no longer young as they pass on to join the church triumphant. I give thanks to God for each and all of them.

The Home Stretch 2017-2019

In 2017 I posted mostly my devotions from the UCC and the occasional guest sermon. In August I preached at South Church in Pittsfield: “Winners or Losers? Reflections on Vocation: A Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31.” The idea of Christian Vocation has been a regular feature of both my devotions and sermons during this decade. Again, I think I have been working through some of my own questions about my own calling now that my days of active pastoral ministry are behind me.

In February I wrote a remembrance for my great friend and mentor Gabriel Fackre, whose encouragement and support over the years were as important as anybody’s. In October I gave “A Eulogy for Rabbi Harold I. Salzmann” my dear friend and inter-faith partner for many years.

In the Spring I preached a retirement sermon for my friend Steven A. Small: “Passing the Baton: A Retirement Sermon on 2 Timothy 4: 4-7.”

In November I was the Consecrating Steward for the Congregational Church in Littleton, MA. That sermon is “Unexpected Miracles: A Sermon on Isaiah 43: 16-21.”

The beginning of this year saw the passing of another of the dear saints. My post “Remembering Horace T. Allen (1933-2019) paid tribute to one of the great ecumenists of our time.

As I look back on ten years of writing this blog I see the theme of “Transitions” emerging. There have been greetings and partings, births, baptisms, ordinations, installation, retirements and deaths to mark and celebrate. These are the transitions of God’s people under God’s providential care.

And in this decade of blogging I, too, have undergone important transitions. I have moved from illness to health, from brokenness to something like wholeness. I have witnessed my children marry and have children of their own. I have become a grandpa, a role I particularly cherish. And I have discovered a new chapter in my life and ministry. The blog has been an important part of that transition. Thanks for following along.

“How then shall we speak of the atonement?” A Reflection for Good Friday

(This essay was first written in 1995 for my study of the atonement with Professor Richard Bauckham at St Andrews University in Scotland. It later appeared as a chapter in my book When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement. Some of the references, therefore, are dated.)

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The death of Jesus Christ was understood by the earliest church, not least by Paul himself, as a divine act of reconciliation between God and humanity. Which is to say that Christ’s death on the cross was understood from the beginning as an atoning death. Continue reading

My Top Ten Posts in 2018

Once again, as the old year passes and the new year beckons, it has been my custom to look back at my most popular posts of the year. Some years a theme emerges, and this year the theme is the idea of “transitions.” My two top posts were tributes to two extraordinary elders at their passing. There is also the sermon I preached at the baptism of my grandson in June. Other posts tried to bring some insight from Scripture and Tradition to bear on our broken world.

It is good to remind ourselves that even in tumultuous times like these the quotidian ebb and flow of life persists; there are births and deaths and the markings and celebrations therof.

Half of these posts were devotions I wrote for the United Church of Christ STILLSPEAKING project. I thank my editors for permission to republish them. Two of them were sermons I preached as a guest preacher.

About my Website: It is non-commercial and open source (but please give attribution if you quote or copy stuff). I pay for my domain name and for a WordPress tier that keeps you from having to see ads. I don’t make a penny on it, and there are no gimmicks. I had forty thousand visits in 2018, and  I currently have 124 followers. Thank you all so much for visiting and come by again in 2019.

Here are the top ten posts for 2018 in order of popularity:

Gabriel J. Fackre (1926-2018) A Remembrance

A Eulogy for Rabbi Harold I. Salzmann

“We’re Still Learning.” A Devotion on Mark 10:42-45

“Down to Earth” A Sermon on John 13:1-17

“Small Beginnings” A Baptismal Sermon on Mark 4:30-34

“Unbearable Words” A Sermon on Amos 7:7-15

“We Shall Walk Through the Valley in Peace” A Devotion on Psalm 23:4

“SHARE!” A Devotion on Acts 2:44-45

“Living Water and Leaky Containers” A Devotion on Jeremiah 2:13

“Scorched by Holy Fire!” A Devotion on Jeremiah 20:8b-9

Once again, as in previous years, certain posts have had real staying power over the years. Many of these are sermons that desperate preachers found on search engines.

So here are my 10 all-time most popular posts since I started “When I Survey . . .” way back in 2009, also listed by popularity:

Why did Jesus refer to Herod as “That fox” in Luke 13:32?

Prayer for a Retired Pastor

“Rejoice! Rejoice!” A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent

“God Gives the Growth:” A Retirement Sermon

“The Lord Will Provide:” A Sermon on Genesis 22

“There is nothing to be afraid of!” A Sermon on Psalm 27:1-2

An Ordination Sermon: The Secret Sauce of Ministry. A Recipe in Two Parts

“God With Us” A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“Behind Locked Doors” A Sermon on John 20:24

“The Message of the Cross” A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:23-25

(My header picture is the view of the marsh behind my house from my back porch. I change it with the changing seasons. R.L. Floyd, 2018)

Gabriel J. Fackre (1926-2018) A Remembrance

I head down to Cape Cod this weekend to mourn the death and celebrate the life of my friend Gabe Fackre. Gabe was very important to my life. I knew him first as my seminary teacher, then my mentor, later a faithful colleague and a life-long friend. Most of all he encouraged me again and again in my ministry. Continue reading

My Book on the Atonement

CoverThe Christian doctrine of Atonement has long been a theological preoccupation of mine, which may seem strange since I didn’t come out of an Evangelical background, where this is a central concern.

I was blessed to have sabbaticals from the pastorate at three iconic British universities, Oxford, St Andrews, and Cambridge, where I read and wrote about this subject.

Out of those experiences came a number of journal articles and this book of essays. I have been heavily influenced by the thought of the British theologian P.T. Forsyth, and many of the chapters in this book focus on his theology.

The book was published in 2000 by Pickwick Press, which later became part of Wipf and Stock Publishers, who re-issued the book in 201o, for which I am grateful.  It is a humble little book that traces my attempt to come to grips with this vexing doctrine. It has an extraordinary foreword  by the estimable Gabriel Fackre, which I think alone makes the book worth having.

Wipf and Stock is currently having a 40% off sale until May 1, so if you are interested in obtaining this book, now is the time. You can go to the link here.

Was Christ’s atoning death an expiation or a propitiation? Ruminations on the cross.

One of the perennial questions about the meaning of Christ’s atoning death is “was it an expiation or a propitiation?”  In other words, was the atonement performed towards us, or towards God?  Both  “expiation” and “propitiation” are terms used of sacrifice, but expiation implies a sacrificial taking away of some sin or offence (i.e. “Christ died for our sins”), whereas propitiation implies assuaging the anger or injured honor, holiness, or some other attribute of God.

An expiation changes us, taking away our sin, whereas a propitiation changes God, satisfying whatever needed to be satisfied.  These are not mutually exclusive, obviously, but different atonement theories will stress one or the other.  For example,  in Abelard’s theory, nothing is offered to God, the atonement is a demonstration of God’s eternal love, whereas in Anselm’s theory the atonement is an offering to God, reconciling sinful humanity to God.   The former risks, among other things, falling into subjectivism and failing to take God’s anger, honor, or justice seriously enough.  The latter is criticized chiefly for turning the anger, honor or justice of God into a third thing beyond the Father and the Son, a necessity to which God is somehow obligated.

A further criticism of propitiation language is that it promotes views of atonement that have elements of punishment in them, thereby making its view of God morally objectionable.  There is always a danger when the justice or wrath of God is separated from God’s love.

But do we have to choose between expiation and propitiation?  Aren’t they both rightly part of a full-orbed understanding of the cross?  Theologian George Hunsinger seems to think so, and in his fine book on the Eucharist, offers this useful analysis:

“God’s wrath is the form taken by God’s love when God’s love is contradicted and opposed. God’s love will not tolerate anything contrary to itself. It does not compromise with evil, or ignore evil, or call evil good. It enters into the realm of evil and destroys it. The wrath of God is propitiated when the disorder of sin is expiated. It would be an error to suppose that “propitiation” and “expiation” must be pitted against each other as though they were mutually exclusive. The wrath of God is removed (propitiation) when the sin that provokes it is abolished (expiation). Moreover, the love of God that takes the form of wrath when provoked by sin is the very same love that provides the efficacious means of expiation (vicarious sacrifice) and therefore of propitiation.”  (George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let us Keep the Feast. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008: 173-4.

It also keeps us from a careless separation of God’s love and wrath, and helps us realize that God’s love is not some avuncular tolerance, but holy love.  God doesn’t tolerate our sins, but takes them away.

(Some of the above is excerpted from my When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement ,  Pickwick, 2000, Wipf and Stock, 2010)

(Picture:  Matthias Grunewald’s Crucifixion from the Isenheim Alterpiece)

Who’s afraid of the big bad cross? The bloodless theology of the mainline church. Thoughts on 2 Corinthians 5:16-21.

If you were to worship in an American conservative evangelical church that hasn’t yet sold its soul to the prosperity Gospel, there is a good chance you may soon hear a sermon about the cross.

Not so in many Mainline churches.  I have been ruminating about why this is, given the cross’ important place in the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, of which the Epistle Lesson appointed for tomorrow, 2 Corinthians 5:16-2, is a prime example.

This passage is clearly about the atonement, which was a word invented by Tyndale (“at-one-ment”) to translate the same Greek word that is also translated as “reconciliation.”

I expect there will be many sermons preached from it in “our” pulpits on how we need to be ambassadors of reconciliation, which is an important message and one I have preached myself.

But what you are less likely to hear is why we Christians are to be ambassadors of reconciliation.  And that reason is clearly because “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” which goes right to the heart of the Gospel, the act of God in Christ that became known as the atonement.

I have stopped using the term “liberal,” because it’s practically useless as a identifier, and its new substitute “progressive” carries political baggage that I find unhelpful.  I realize “mainline” has its own problems, but at least it covers a wider range of both theological and political positions.

So why do “we” (by whatever name) generally like the idea of reconciliation, yet not like the idea of atonement, even though they mean the same thing?

I have some thoughts.  One reason is some bad teaching in some of our seminaries, based on a view (false, in my view) that the cross is a bad business that perpetuates violence, which I have addressed elsewhere.  There is a current cottage industry making the rounds with this view, and many of our newer ministers, indoctrinated by it, are just uncomfortable or downright hostile to any atonement theology, however nuanced.

Another reason is that many folks who end up with our denominations are refugees from various traditions that have had excessive or morbid preoccupations with “the power of the blood,” and/or who have been subject to formulaic atonement theories that make God into a monster that needs blood sacrifice.  I have addressed that as well, in my book, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross:  Reflections on the Atonement.

I realize that some atonement theories can be monstrous, and I am aware of Stanley Hauerwas’s typically biting comment that if “you need a theory to worship Christ, go worship your theory.”

Nevertheless, what the word atonement connotes is at the crux (which is Latin for cross ) of our Gospel and proclamation if we are still to be called Christians.

And “the power of the blood,” however it has been misused, is just theological shorthand for Christ dying on our behalf, an act of the triune God, that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, namely reconciling us to God and to one another.  This is why Paul says we are now ambassadors of reconciliation.

Yesterday I sent out a Passion hymn text to a number of my colleagues, thinking they might want to use it on Passion/Palm Sunday or during Holy Week.  Most thanked me, some said they would use it, but several said they had a problem with the” blood“ in it.

The first verse is:

“He died upon the lonely tree
forsaken by his God.
And yet his death means all to me
and saves me by his blood.”

If you want to see the rest of the hymn it can be found here.

As Passiontide and Good Friday loom, “we” might do well to ask ourselves just what it is we are going to preach about if “the work of Christ” and its symbolic language is off limits?